All I want for Christmas is a giant asteroid flyby

15 Dec 2015

A giant asteroid, with a diameter of 1.3km and shaped like a chicken goujon, is whizzing by Earth on Christmas Eve – spoiler alert, we won’t die.

Blandly named 163899, NASA doesn’t know a whole lot about this asteroid, but the space agency does know we’ll get a glimpse of it when it flies by Santa on Christmas Eve night.

It will travel at five miles per second, appearing 6.7m miles away at its nearest point and, if you have a telescope and a bit of astronomy knowledge (I have the former, I sadly lack the latter), you will be able to track the finger-food like rock as it scoots on by.

163899 is of particular interest to NASA for two reasons. First up, this is the first of five flybys, the next coming in December 2018, then December 2021. It’s obviously a festive asteroid.

Secondly, 163899 is actually on NASA’s Near-Earth Object Programme (NHATS), which means the agency will investigate if human spaceflight up to it is feasible.

“By obtaining radar-ranging measurements at each observing opportunity, it may be possible to detect non-gravitational perturbations due to the Yarkovsky effect,” said NASA.

The Yarkovsky effect relates to sunlight altering the course of asteroids and comets, with a fine write-up about it here.

“If so, then we can obtain an estimate of the object’s mass, information that is invaluable for understanding the object’s bulk density and internal structure.”

Thankfully, one of the things NASA is aware of is the asteroid’s flight path over the next two centuries, during which it won’t crash into Earth.

Main asteroid image via Shutterstock (I added the hat)

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic